Census confronts pandemic
A massive U.S. Census outreach that was supposed to go door-to-door to contact Oregonians has shifted gears amid calls for greater social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s definitely asking us to be creative,” said Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett, manager of We Count Oregon. “We’ve mostly put our team on self-quarantining and self isolation.”
We Count is headquartered in Jackson County but is in charge of a $9.5 million statewide outreach effort. This is the first time that a statewide census outreach has been headquartered out of this county.
Outreach organizers hoped to personally connect with hard-to-count populations such as children, Native Americans, immigrants, minorities, non-English speakers, the disabled, the LGBTQ community and rural families. Many of these residents might not be registered to vote, and some might not be citizens.
Instead of going door-to-door, outreach workers are being set up to work at home, with organizers trying to install remote phone systems.
“We’re paying them not to work while we get the phone banking set up,” said Annie Narango-Rivera, statewide organizer for Unite Oregon, one of two state outreach organizations that have hired workers for Southern Oregon. The U.S. Census Bureau is also conducting its own outreach.
Unite Oregon’s phone system will have an auto-dialer function to allow more calls to be made on a given day.
Still, without the ability to go door-to-door — and with Oregonians hunkering down during the pandemic — the big question is how much the crisis will affect the accuracy of the census count.
“We’re definitely concerned about that,” Narango-Rivera said. “That’s why we are so concerned about how we get the message out virtually.”
Social media, emails, texts and phone calls are some of the outreach methods. Narango-Rivera said various efforts in the state are hoping to contact 200,000 hard-to-count people in Oregon directly.
Organizers anticipated the census count should add about 450,000 people in Oregon, enough to qualify for an additional Congressional district. An accurate census count ensures that Oregon receives its fair share of federal dollars, about $3,200 for every person counted in the state.
April 1 is the key date for the census, which is required by the U.S. Constitution every 10 years. It’s the date when residents need to calculate how many people live in a household.
In Southern Oregon, Unite Oregon has six people who will be manning phones, and We Count has another 20.
The good news is the census questions can be filled out on your computer and in the comfort of your own home. The problem is many people in Oregon don’t have access to a computer or even have an internet connection at home, particularly in rural areas. For some Oregonians, they can just fill out a paper questionnaire and mail it. Go online at 2020Census.gov or call 844-330-2020 to fill out the questionnaire by phone.
People can get questions answered and respond to the 2020 Census in English and 12 other languages by calling the phone questionnaire assistance number.
The count started March 12, and attempts will be made through May to contact people who have not submitted the form.
According to a Portland State University study, areas of Jackson County where it’s difficult to get a good census count include west Medford to Central Point, and north of Delta Waters Road to White City. Most of rural north Jackson County from Eagle Point to beyond Prospect will also need additional outreach.
Most of the county has a high risk of an undercount of children younger than 5, according to a census map. A portion of northwest Medford has a very high risk of an undercount of children.
A swath of Ashland surrounding Southern Oregon University, where students live, is also a difficult place to get an accurate count.
Reservation land is a big target for census education, both to the north in Douglas County and to the east in Klamath County.
With many Oregonians staying home, census organizers hope that means more people will have the time to sit down and fill out the questionnaire, a process that takes about 10 minutes.
Most residents have received the questionnaire in the mail from the U.S. Census Bureau, and completion of the questionnaire is required by law.
The Census Bureau, which is conducting its own outreach efforts, has already moved some deadlines ahead because of the pandemic.
A nonresponse follow-up that was going to start April 9 has been postponed to April 23. A mobile questionnaire assistance program was delayed from March 30 to April 13.
Local outreach organizers have attempted to build their staff in a way that will best reflect the hard-to-count populations.
“I’m the child of Cuban refugees, the child of immigrants,” Narango-Rivera said. “We’re trying to create ambassadors who have a trusted message.”
Precious Edmonds, community engagement and partnership coordinator with We Count, said her organization had obtained office space in Ashland before the pandemic erupted, but she and others are working from home. We Count also has an office in Portland.
The door-to-door campaign has been suspended as more emphasis is placed on phone banks and texting, Edmonds said.
“Our team is extremely well trained in reaching out to target demographics,” Edmonds said.
Misty Slater, media specialist in Oregon for the U.S. Census Bureau, said her organization is prepared to help those who might have difficulties completing the questionnaire.
“We know what areas of the country don’t have good internet,” she said.
College students are also a difficult group to count, so more outreach is needed around campuses, she said.
This is the first time the Census Bureau has had an online questionnaire.
If technology doesn’t work to get your responses back to the U.S. Census Bureau, you can fall back on the tried-and-true method.
“You’ll still get a paper questionnaire,” Slater said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.